Archive for October, 2007

As far as possible, rest thou not for a moment, travel to the North and South of the country and summon all men to the oneness of the world of humanity and to universal peace. `Abdu’l-Bahá, Baha’i writings

I’m travelling up Harrogate on Thursday for the annual conference of Soroptimist International of Great Britain and Ireland (SIGBI). SIGBI covers not only the UK and Ireland but also most of the Commonwealth countries as well, so a great diversity of people attend from all over the world. I love these conferences, which focus on the work the Soroptimists are doing to help lift women out of poverty, to empower them to take part in the decision-making that affects their lives and protects them from ill health and ill will – that is, from people who do not have the best interests of them as individuals or women in general at heart.

So the conference will be on a grand scale with noble themes. But I am thinking about getting there and back!

I am travelling by car (I know, I know, very unenvironmental. But I need to leave there about midnight on Saturday night and there are no trains at all after 19:05. Well, actually, there are. The 19:44 will get me home at 11:05 the next morning – a trip of 15 hours 21 minutes. The next train after that is a little better – it leaves at 22:37 and gets me in at 12:37 the next day after only 12 hours 37 minutes. So I am driving – the 150 miles will take me about three hours to drive. Too bad – I love the train but it is not going to work out this time.

I need to get back because we have our good friends Todd and Barbara Lawson from Canada visiting us and we are all going to a concert at the Albert Hall in London on Sunday evening to hear my friend Judith Mooney sing (in a choir, not a solo!) – the concert is in aid of the British Council for the Prevention of Blindness. As someone with a great many friends with visual impairment – and a grandmother who went blind in her later years – and having had severe shortsightedness all my life, this is cause I want to support – and I want to hear the concert too, of course.

In the past, we would never have considered travelling such distances in such a short time – now it is commonplace and we except to go miles and miles and miles to visit friends, go to work and entertain ourselves. On these occasions, I am supporting two good causes.

But I think about the environmental impact of this lifestyle and know it is not sustainable. I do rather hold out the hope that there is a solution to our energy issues, to global warming and to other environmental concerns that will be discovered once we people of the world recognise our oneness and begin to put in place the strategies that will enable us to cooperate rather than fight.

This hopes comes from a statement made by Shoghi Effendi, head of the Bahá’í Faith from 1921 until 1957, in which he outlined the outcomes that would result from a united world:

The enormous energy dissipated and wasted on war, whether economic or political, will be consecrated to such ends as will extend the range of human inventions and technical development, to the increase of the productivity of mankind, to the extermination of disease, to the extension of scientific research, to the raising of the standard of physical health, to the sharpening and refinement of the human brain, to the exploitation of the unused and unsuspected resources of the planet, to the prolongation of human life, and to the furtherance of any other agency that can stimulate the intellectual, the moral, and spiritual life of the entire human race (World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 204).

I know the chances of this happening before I travel to Harrogate on Thursday are nil – on the other hand, the journey to Harrogate is to foster just such developments, that is, to be part of building that united world. I just wish the train would run after midnight…

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wendi

Standing Up and Standing Down

Stand up for the Divine Cause, and behave with the utmost affection one with the other. Bahá’u’lláh, Bahá’í writings

It was my birthday yesterday and so a time for reflection. But rather than reflect on the whole past year, I want to reflect on just the past few days, which have all been about standing up and standing down.

I’ve been a magistrate for 25 years exactly now. Magistrates are volunteer, unpaid, first level judges here in the UK – as someone once so succinctly put it, we put people in jail for a hobby. For the last nine years I have been vice chairman of the bench (this is what you call a collection of magistrates who sit in the same court). But I stood down at our annual meeting a few days ago to let someone else have a go. I am still in post until the end of the calendar year, though.

A group of us at the University of Edinburgh took a robust stand against terrorism and the fear of terrorism, looking at the implementation of the Bahá’í teachings, particularly on world government and collective action and security, as the most effective way to prevent and deal with terrorism.

The girls at Newstead Wood School in Bromley and I stood together as women who want to change the world and know we have ability to do so! We considered many ways to get involved in volunteering, entering public life and being social activists. What excellent young people they are – vibrant and engaged and concerned for the well-being of humanity.

On 15 October I stood up for the environment with bloggers around the world – amazing to be part of this worldwide endeavour!

I finally stood down from chairmanship and the board of the One World Trust at its meeting last week after 10 years. I was sad to go but will continue to support their work.

Everyone stood up for poverty on 17 October. The poverty gap continues to widen – astounding, when we have the ability and means to get rid of poverty completely.

I sat down, too, on 17 October and watched a concert in Cardiff in aid of the UNIFEM Trust Fund to combat violence against women. A wonderful concert, largely thanks to the efforts of UNIFEM members Kay Richmond and Marina Monios. We raised quite a bit of money – but, again, why does violence still go on in the 21st century?

18 October was chance for local people from all faith traditions and none to take a stand on the question `Islam in Europe: Who Adapts to Whom?’ Bedford Council of Faiths hosted and I facilitated a vigorous, lively and powerful discussion on this `elephant in the room’. Muslim academics Sheikh Michael Mumisa and Iftikhar Malik put across the point that Islam is a religion that is based on flexibility and changing circumstances; local Member of Parliament Patrick Hall and local C of E vicar Jay MacLeod responded on how we in Europe can live peacefully side by side, standing together against the tiny minority of whatever persuasion who would destroy our unity.

On Friday local parish and town councillors and the clerks sat down to discuss the Sustainable Communities Development Plan that drives our local development. We discussed initiatives around the environment, health, young people, jobs and work, and housing. Astounding to me that people think these are all separate things . . . and then complain when they learn they are connected, saying that we are saying the same things over and over.

Friday night I learned about young people standing up for what they believe and being strong in the face of life’s difficulties. This from Ruhi book 5 – my favourite of all the Ruhi training institute books – which I am facilitating with a group of friends.

And yesterday people of many faiths stood together in Guildford to reflect on the work of the UN and on the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development. This was after I sat down with my family for a breakfast birthday party, including balloons, strawberry and cream flan and pass the parcel!

Today I am standing in for the Bedford Council of Faiths at the official opening of the Bedford campus of the new University of Bedford in the presence of HRH the Earl of Wessex and later on will drive north to stand as the Bahá’í representative on the Multi-Faith Centre at the University of Derby at its AGM.

You may think these are all different things – actually, they are all one thing: people living together on one planet. Bahá’ís believe that by standing in unity and working together for peace, for the environment, for women, for young people, for families, for understanding, for education the world will be much more live-in-able. This is why I am happy to stand up as a Bahá’í.

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Every man of discernment, while walking upon the earth, feeleth indeed abashed, inasmuch as he is fully aware that the thing which is the source of his prosperity, his wealth, his might, his exaltation, his advancement and power is, as ordained by God, the very earth which is trodden beneath the feet of all men. Bahá’u’lláh, Bahá’í writings

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(Painted by Marion Prentice)

Today, 15 October, is `Blog Action Day‘. Today thousands of bloggers around the world are focusing on one issue – the environment. As a Bahá’í and a member of the International Environment Forum (IEF), I totally support this initiative!

I am happy that Al Gore has won the Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution to raising consciousness on the issue of climate change. Co-winner was the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). There has been a lot of flack about these winners and whether they deserve it. Much criticism has been levelled at the winners – and at the Nobel committee – because there are still quite a few people who do not think that human activity has anything – or anything much – to do with climate change.

Well, although I take a different view from these people, I also think it does not matter now. I attended a fascinating IEF conference on climate change last year and came away realising that even if human beings have had nothing to do with climate change (and I for one believe the evidence that we have had a LOT to do with it!), the climate is definitely changing and we now have to adapt our lives to live with the new situation. In addition, climate change is only one dimension of the environment, although right now the most topical and probably among the most pressing. We still contribute hugely to all forms of environmental pollution and degradation, to litter, to water loss, to light pollution so we can’t see the stars at night even in the countryside, to noise pollution, to over-fishing, to deforestation, to the loss of biodiversity (those of you who know me know my concern for local glow worms and great crested newts), the change of beauty spots to car parks, to traffic jams and ugly beaches and the death of coral reefs. We are still using up a lot of natural resources that don’t seem to be easily replaced and we still don’t seem to think we need to address this globally. So, yes, I think we humans should talk about these issues with each other, try to live lightly and rightly and see if we can find ways to make our planet healthier and more live-in-able for longer for all of us.

The International Environment Forum, a Bahá’í inspired organisation, has just concluded its annual conference on the subject of `Responding to Climate Change: Scientific Realities, Spiritual Imperatives’ – you can listen to all the speakers on line and get the Bahá’í perspective.

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Tahirih Naylor gives the view of the Bahá’í International Community, which can be summarised thus:

The Bahá’í Faith teaches that, as trustees of the planet’s vast resources and biological diversity, humanity must seek to protect the `heritage [of] future generations’; see in nature a reflection of the divine; approach the earth, the source of material bounties, with humility; temper its actions with moderation; and be guided by the fundamental spiritual truth of our age, the oneness of humanity. (Bahá’í International Community, `Conservation and Sustainable Development in the Bahá’í Faith’)

Bahá’u’lláh, founder of the Bahá’í Faith, addressed the issue of the environment in the 19th century. Interestingly, in 1993 Al Gore picked this up and mentioned it in his book Earth in the Balance, which is now in a new edition:

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One of the newest of the great universalist religions, Baha’i, founded in 1863 in Persia by Mirza Husayn Ali, warns us not only to properly regard the relationship between humankind and nature but also the one between civilization and the environment. Perhaps, because its guiding visions were formed during the period of accelerating industrialism, Baha’i seems to dwell on the spiritual implications of the great transformation to which it bore fresh witness: `We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and ever abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions.’

And again from the Baha’i sacred writings comes this: `Civilization, so often vaunted by the learned exponents of arts and scientists will, if allowed to overleap the bounds of moderation, bring great evil upon men.’

Having so leapt, we are now having to learn how to adapt. Let’s hope the earth accepts our apologies and continues to support us.

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wendi

Forced to Travel

It is forbidden you to trade in slaves, be they men or women. It is not for him who is himself a servant to buy another of God’s servants, and this hath been prohibited in His Holy Tablet. Bahá’u’lláh, Bahá’í writings

You probably know that 2007 marks 200 years since a Parliamentary Bill was passed to abolish the slave trade in the then British Empire. You probably also know that slavery didn’t end right away. What you might not know is how many slaves there still are in the world today. 27 million. Mostly women and children. At least 2.4 million of them are trafficked. And quite a lot of the are living, if you can call it living, right here in the United Kingdom, the country that abolished the slave trade 200 years ago.

I have been looking at this because tomorrow I am supposed to be giving a talk about this. But because I have a prior engagement in Edinburgh to talk about terrorism, I have asked my husband to present the paper on slavery on my behalf.

But as I was researching the paper I got more and more angry. Here’s why:

* A 19-year-old girl from Lithuania thought she was coming to London on holiday with friends, only to find they were people traffickers who sold her into prostitution.

* A young woman from Romania was offered a job in the UK:

One day a friend of my stepfather stopped me in town and said that he knew we were struggling and that he could find me work in a restaurant if I wanted it – in the UK, with his son.

He said I would make up to £3,000 a month and my mother begged me to go. I knew that money would make a big difference to my family, so I agreed.

This man bribed the immigration officials to get me a fake passport, and I flew on my own the UK where I was met by his son. He was abusive immediately, slapping me and raping me as soon as we got to his house.

I was kept locked in the house for two weeks. He raped and slapped me every day. He also bought me make up and sexy clothes and made me watch sex films.

After two weeks he took me to my first brothel, where I was forced to have sex with men I did not know.

I had to work from 11am to 10pm every day, even during my periods, and I often had to give oral sex without a condom. I had to do my best because if the customer complained I would be beaten.

Sometimes they did not let me eat at night because they did not want me to get fat, so I was often hungry.

I was taken to a variety of brothels and saunas, but never allowed out alone. I did not try to escape; they threatened that they would inject me with drugs, or cut my sister’s hands and legs off if I did anything like that.

Eventually, the police raided the flat I was in, and I was taken into custody and then to the Poppy Project.

The sex trade is not the only bank of modern British slaves. Here is a report from the US State Department about us:

`The United Kingdom (UK) is primarily a destination country for women, children and men trafficked for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation and forced labour. Some victims, however, are also trafficked within the country. The majority of victims are women trafficked internationally to the UK for sexual exploitation, though children are also trafficked to the UK for the same purpose. Migrant workers are trafficked to the UK for forced labour in agriculture, construction, food processing, domestic servitude, restaurants and possibly for illicit activities such as street theft. Children, particularly from West Africa, are also trafficked to the UK for forced labour in cannabis factories and Afghan minors may be trafficked for forced manual labour. Main sources of foreign trafficking victims found in the UK are Lithuania, Russia, Albania, Ukraine, Malaysia, Thailand, the People’s Republic of China, East and Central Africa, Nigeria, and Ghana.’ – US State Dept Trafficking in Persons Report, June, 2007

So, for example, a boy of 15 was trafficked from Vietnam to work in an illegal cannabis factory in an ordinary suburban house. Such factories are often owned by drug gangs who make the children work as `gardeners’ to pay off family debts. He had little control over his freedom. The conditions he worked in were very dangerous, with illegal electricity used to provide the plants with constant warmth and light causing serious risk of fire and electrocution. He was also subjected over a prolonged period to the intense, potentially lethal, fumes from the chemicals used in the factory.

When the factory was raided by police, he was arrested and referred to social services. However, he went missing in reception before his assessment and his whereabouts are now unknown.

The Joseph Rowntree Trust notes that `the UK has tended to address trafficking as an issue of migration control rather than one of human rights’. Often the victims are treated as the perpetrators and are themselves arrested, convicted and imprisoned, as was a woman from Sierra Leone, who

`came to the UK aged 11 after being befriended by a British man who told her he could help her find a school. Once in the UK, she was taken to a flat in London and not allowed out. When she was 12 she was drugged and gang raped.

`From that day on, she was forced to serve up to 10 men every day. When she attempted suicide aged 15, Sandra was moved to a separate location and locked in solitary confinement.

`A spokeswoman said, “This isolation and terror endured for a further five years with increased levels of physical violence at the hands of her pimp.”

`One morning the woan’s captor forgot to lock her bedroom door before leaving the house and she grabbed her chance and ran. She was later picked up by the police, who asked her for identification. When she was unable to produce any, she was arrested and later jailed for “immigration offences”. ‘

These stories come from the BBC the Poppy Project, a London-based government scheme which provides accommodation and support for enslaved women; the Joseph Rowntree Foundation; Slave Britain. The statistics come from the Home Office, the ILO, UNICEF, Save the Children, Anti-Slavery International and the US State Department country reports.

Slavery is officially banned internationally by all countries. So how is it there are 27 million slaves worldwide?

How is that there are 2.4 million trafficked slaves in the world today?

How is it that 218 million children are used for labour?

How is it that 126 million children work in especially horrific circumstances, including the virtual slavery of bonded labour – that is, one in 12 of every child between the ages of 5 and 17?

How is it that there are around 300,000 child soldiers involved in over 30 areas of conflict worldwide, some younger than 10 years old?

Bahá’ís say we are in this situation because we still do not have unity in the world. We still do not recognise the oneness of humanity. We still do not have a clue what human dignity is all about. We still do not understand the fundamental equality of women and men. We still think it is OK to use people for our own economic advantage or our own pleasure.

Acting in unity at the international level to stamp our slavery is, then, for Bahá’ís an imperative. Bahá’ís therefore welcome the appointment of a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery on 28 September this year, marking an historic step forward in the fight against all forms of slavery.

But for this step to be effective all governments need to extend an open invitation to the UN Special Rapporteur to visit their countries and by providing the Rapporteur with their full cooperation. Will this happen?

Check in 200 years from now . . .

You can also do something by joining the Trafficked Free Zone group on my Facebook. You can also join UNIFEM in the UK and help stamp it out!

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wendi

Room at the Inn

`We sometimes stayed at a caravanserai — a sort of rough inn. Only one room was allowed for one family, and for one night — no longer. No light was permitted at night, and there were no beds. Sometimes we were able to have tea, or again a few eggs, a little cheese, and some coarse bread.’ Bahiyyih Khanum, telling Lady Blomfield the story of the journey Bahá’u’lláh and His family from Tehran to Baghdad in 1853

The EBBF conference was a mine of information on all things related to work, business, corporate social responsibility, business ethics and work life balance. It was great to see old friends and make new ones. The speakers brought experience and humour and wisdom to the conference and the workshops were useful and fun! De Poort Conference Centre is a great place to stay – deep in the forest with lovely walks all around – not that I actually went on any walks – too busy talking with friends!

The manager of De Poort, EBBF member Ben Wolters, offered some insights into how to run a conference centre and this turned out to be just one of several sessions that used the hotel industry as an example of what the speaker was talking about. So not only did I learn about business ethics and social responsibility, I also learned a lot about staying in hotels!

Here are some of the facts I learned:

* `Big’ hotels tend not to have set prices for their rooms. Room prices vary and fluctuate across the week, the season and even the time of day.

* The price of rooms rises in the afternoon as the rooms fill up. A hotel does not want to fill all of its rooms in the afternoon so increases the price of the rooms to lower demand.

* However, if the rooms do not fill up in the evening, the hotel will lower the room price to sell the room. The reason for this is that the hotel needs to maximize the number of rooms let each night – if the room is empty overnight, they get no income from it but still have to pay staff, electricity, etc. So they will try to get any price for it. So if you are flexible and need a room in a good hotel late at night, you are likely to get a very inexpensive price for it.

* All the good hotels in the area know the prices the other good hotels are charging for their rooms during the day.

* If you book a room in a good hotel on the Internet, it is likely to be MORE expensive than if you call the hotel, explain your situation and book it directly. You can check on the Internet first to see if the price quoted there is cheaper than the one you get on the phone and then book accordingly but the hoteliers’ advice was always to call and talk to the hotel to see if they can give you a good price.

* It is always worthwhile talking directly to the hotel and explaining your situation, e.g. that you are looking for a reasonably priced room, that you will arrive late or leave early, that you have special needs, etc.

* Price is not the only thing you can talk about if you call. You might get a better room, an upgrade or some additional feature.

* Good hotels give a lot of attention to detail and want to distinguish themselves on their customer service. So they like to get feedback from guests.

* Hotel managers tend to rather fanatical about the appearance, cleanliness and orderliness of the hotel – which is good for the customer, in my opinion.

I should say that none of this seems to apply in many of the hotels and B&Bs I have stayed in – except for De Poort and Acuto, I should add. But from now on I am going to try out these tips!

What is your experience?

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